My Life’s Birds: #454
May 12, 2008 – Roanoke Canal Trail, NC – No less an ornithological founding father than J. J. Audubon called this bird a Swamp Warbler, though he tended to throw that name around a bit. Prothonotary Warbler is a “Swamp Warbler” too, as well as the now-extinct Bachman’s Warbler. The whole Swamp Warbler thing has more to with the fact that, back in the 18th century, the southeast was covered in swamps and thus, the birds found there were, by definition, swamp birds. Too many have been drained now, leaving all three of Audubon’s swampers in various states of limbo. One gone forever, one bruised but for a massive and largely successful nest-box initiative by national conservation organizations, and one still a mysterious denizen of impenetrable Giant Cane stands in the lowlands on the southeast, the Swainson’s Warbler.
A funny thing about the Swainson’s Warbler is that, while most everyone associates them with labyrinthine swamps, there a second population that nests in rhododendron groves in the Appalachians, not a swamp environ at all. Whether or not there any discernible difference between the two populations, in voice or dimensions or wintering grounds, is unknown – there’s probably a graduate project in there somewhere – but when looking for Swainson’s Warblers you have two options, the mountains or the swamps. Fool that I was, I took the swamp birds, traveling to Weldon, North Carolina near Roanoke Rapids where I had heard both the Swainson’s and nesting Cerulean Warblers could be found. I had big plans for both, but the Cerulean was a total bust (still is, actually). The Swainson’s however, allowed a brief look at a loudly singing bird through dense brush while standing in a patch of stinging nettle. My legs turned red and blotchy, my shoes covered in a whole seed bank’s worth of burrs, and my shirt soaked through in sweat, but I had my bird, one which so often makes you work for it. Par for the course really.
Since then I haven’t made the effort to go after Swainson’s Warbler again, even though my experience was less than soul-satisfying. Part of that is my own hesitance to battle the habitat, or my reluctance to make the drive to the proper place. But I know of a good area only an hour away that I need to explore, and my dad should be here in the spring. He needs Swainson’s Warbler too. It might be worth braving the swamp to get it.